Tube-Based Home Theater–Why Not?
the Zen Ultra 5.1-channel preamplifier
Many audiophiles love tube gear. So why do we almost never see or hear about tube-based home theater systems? If tubes sound so luxuriously great, why aren’t they more common in home entertainment installations?
Multichannel-friendly tube products do exist. Decware makes a multichannel tube preamp— the Zen Ultra, a $2,995 six-channel unit that accommodates up to four program sources. Butler Audio offers its five-channel TDB 5150 tube power amplifier ($2,995) and three-channel TDB 3150 (price currently unavailable). For a program source, there are the
readers know of any other products, please let me know.) There are also Samsung components that have tubes in their amplifiers, but they’re home-theater-in-a-box systems, not luxury AV products.
On the other hand, there is a plethora of tube amplifiers (in addition to the Butler Audio models) that could be used in a home theater system. In a 5.1 system, for example,
the tubes in Samsung’s HT-H7750 home-theater-in-a-box system
you could employ stereo amps for the main and the surround channels and a mono or bridged stereo amp for the center channel. Or use five separate mono amps. (This is assuming a powered subwoofer in the system; a passive subwoofer would require another amp to drive it.)
So—other than tube amplifiers, there’s an obvious lack of tube home theater components.
Also, to use a multichannel tube preamp, you’d want to pair it with a source component with discrete (separate) multichannel audio outputs. You guessed it—there aren’t many around. Other than the ModWright/BDP-105, BDP-105D, and UDP-205 (and other models they’ve offered over the years), there are only a few other (solid-state) Blu-ray players with such outputs,
like the highly regarded Ultra HD Panasonic DP-UB9000 or the Denon Professional DN-500BD MK II, recommended by Decware head honcho Steve Deckert. (You could use an HDMI-to-multichannel analog converter box with a Blu-ray player or other A/V source without multichannel analog outputs, but such a kludge would almost certainly degrade the sound.)
What about those tube amps? There are plenty available. But you’d have to use amps that are powerful enough for home theater, which limits the range of choices. Just picture a phalanx of big, hot, heavy, energy-sucking amps in your home-entertainment room—maybe not something that
would fit into your living environment. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, tube components do require some attention and maintenance.
But the main reason tube-based home theater systems are rare is that there’s almost no demand for them. As Stereophile’s Kal Rubinson noted, “There are too few people to make tube home theater components a viable market for manufacturers. Even 10 years ago, when we were in what we might call a ‘golden age’ of home theater popularity, it was hard to find such components or customers who wanted them.”
Based on my experience over decades of going to countless audio shows, dealers, and homes, I agree. And there are those who would say, “Why bother? Tubes don’t sound any better than solid-state.”
That said, having a tube home theater system is more than just some outrageous idea dreamed up by the editor and myself.
While not wanting to reveal sales figures, Decware told me the company sells several of its six-channel tube preamps each year. And between 2010 and 2019, ModWright has sold an average of 100 tube Blu-ray players each year (in addition to
other tube and hybrid components). That’s hundreds of listeners—maybe not McDonald’s numbers, but proof that there are enthusiasts out there who prize tube home theater sound. (How many home theater systems have tube amps? As of now, I don’t have an estimate, if one is even available.)
Also, although they’re not multichannel, there are countless stereo tube CD players, DACs (digital-to-analog
converters), and even phono stages that could be incorporated into home entertainment systems, the $2,999 PrimaLuna Prologue Classic CD player (shown above) being just one example.
In fact, there are some who feel you don’t even need multichannel to enjoy spacious home theater sound. A well-set-up 2-channel or 2.1-channel system (two speakers and a subwoofer) can offer a compelling listening experience, maybe even fooling listeners into thinking they’re hearing surround sound. And there’s a wide variety of tube stereo components out there with which to create such a system.
Certainly, most people are going to go with a standard home-entertainment installation. Yet if you want to experience some sonic tube flavor in your system, it might be an uncommon option—but it’s a viable one.
Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.